The Primal Goal
Many, many (MANY) years ago, our ancestors had fewer dietary options available than we do today. Their primal way of eating is what sustained them. Sometimes meals were far and few between (but the virtues of intermittent fasting is for another time). Getting the most bang for the buck, or the most nutrition in a meal, was our ancestor’s prime goal. They may not have understood the formal idea of nutrition, but they understood which foods kept them alive, which foods gave them more energy, which foods tasted good, and which foods healed their ailments. If you ask me, they did pretty well with the knowledge they had!
And even if you don’t fall into the “millions of years ago” camp, I’m sure you can agree that even a few hundred years ago your great-great-great-great grandparent’s diet was different than your diet today. Processed foods, including flour and sugar, were in short supply, if not non-existent in their little nook of the country. The majority of their diet consisted of meat, vegetables, and fats that were grown in their own gardens and raised in their own barns. There were no foil wrapped toaster pastries for breakfast, microwavable burritos for lunch, or cellophane wrapped cupcakes for an afternoon snack.
This is where paleo goes from “eat what your ancestors ate”, to something even more confusing. There are many different forms of the paleo diet. That is because the paleo diet is very personal. Honestly, I don’t even like to call it a diet, but I’ll get into that below. There’s the primal diet, which includes high fat dairy and focuses on high fat and moderate protein (think the Keto diet, or the Primal Blueprint). There’s paleo autoimmune protocol (AIP), which removes all inflammatory foods from the diet (the same as traditional paleo, with the addition of nightshades, eggs, butter, and ghee) and then slowly reintroduces them to see where sensitivities lie. There’s also the FODMAPS diet, which additionally removes foods that contain fermentable oligo-,di-, monosaccharides, and polyols (short chain carbohydrates found in many foods).
How Do You Paleo?
Can I tell you a little secret? I don’t necessarily fall into the any of these categories of the paleo way of eating, either. However, I do see and greatly respect the findings of each diet. As I learn more about what it is to be paleo, I also learn that the paleo lifestyle is very personal for each individual.
For myself and my husband, transitioning to a paleo life was initially a way of healing the body (without going fully AIP – we have not removed nightshades, eggs, or ghee from our diet). When your health reaches a point where you can see the disease creeping in more and more rapidly, you start eliminating foods that have been scientifically shown to cause inflammation and, SURPRISE! The body begins to heal. So the reasoning behind my paleo lifestyle? I believe that our bodies were originally designed to process certain foods. These foods “just happen” to be the foods that were most readily available to our ancestors. It wasn’t until the advent of agriculture and technology, coupled with the growing population, that we began to cultivate certain crops and domesticate certain animals.
Let’s look at an example. It was only 15,000 years ago that we began cultivating grain. However, our bodies are not designed to process grains. First off, grains are a poor source of bioavailable nutrients. Our biology is just not equipped to access these nutrients. Then, there are studies spanning decades that have shown time and time again that the gluten in grains cause severe gut inflammation. The now inflamed and damaged gut lining cannot properly absorb what nutrients are available. Add to this the phytic acid or phytates that are abundant in grains. Phytic acid causes problems because it binds to minerals that are consumed, such as calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc, making them pass through the digestive system unabsorbed. Now, let’s look at the lectins found in grains (and legumes). Lectins are another anti-nutrient, like phytic acid. They are the plant’s defense mechanism to protect the plant’s reproduction and survival. They further irritate the gut lining to “speed” any seeds through the digestive system to ensure the seed’s survival. We’re now adding more irritation to the irritation already caused by gluten.
So, if we began cultivating grains 15,000 years ago, wouldn’t our bodies adapt in that time? Fifteen thousand years is nothing to sneeze at!
The short answer? NO.
Not in that amount of time.
Just give it a few million years and we’d be a species equipped to eat grains. We do evolve, just not that rapidly.
What Do I Need To Eliminate?
I could give you all of the details of why each food is eliminated from the paleo diet, but we would be here all day. For now, I’m going to give you a quick list and then each will be touched on more in depth in future posts.
- Grains: contain anti-nutrients (phytic acid and letin) as well as inflammatory gluten (while corn is gluten free, it is also a grain rather than a vegetable)
- Legumes and peanuts: these also contain phytic acid and lectins and peanuts contain additional aflatoxins (they are produced by mold that particularly likes peanuts and crops such as corn)
- Dairy products: this is a bit of a grey area – strict paleo dictates “no”, but as we discussed, paleo is a very personal definition….if you have issues with dairy (digestion, allergy, or hormonal) it makes sense to eliminate it….if you’re not certain, eliminate it for six weeks, reintroduce it, and see how you feel
- Refined sugar: this one is a bit self-evident as it is well known that refined sugar and hfcs are nutrient void
- Vegetable oils: canola oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, and blends are high in Omega 6’s which are highly inflammatory
- Potatoes and rice: both of these are another one of those grey areas, and why I lumped them together – there is nothing bad in either of these (except brown rice, which falls under grains) but there is nothing good either, as they convert rapidly to sugar in the body and offer little else in the way of nutrients
So What Can I Eat?
At this point, you’re probably wondering “what can I eat?!”
OMG, the list is endless! And I can testify that I have not once gotten bored with the selection of foods available on the paleo diet. I have so many recipes and food ideas to share in future posts.
First and foremost, paleo emphasizes grass-fed and organic. While I admit that this is a nice thought, I also know that it is not something that is possible if you only have a modest budget. The thinking is that you are what you eat, so if you’re eating beef that has been fattened or “finished” off of a grain diet, you’re missing out on conjugated linoleic acid and more of the anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fats and antioxidants that grass-fed beef has. The balance of anti-inflammatory Omega 3’s to inflammatory Omega 6’s is an important balance. You want your ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 to be within the 1:1 to 4:1 range. Grain finished meats are much higher in Omega 6’s, thus much more inflammatory.
HOWEVER, not being able to afford grass-fed and organic is not a reason to abandon paleo! Buy what you can afford. I can’t emphasize that enough. Just the step of eliminating all of the unhealthy, processed, inflammatory foods is going to make a huge impact on your health. And maybe you’ll find that the money you save from cutting out processed, prepackaged foods will allow you to get a grass-fed roast every so often, or a couple dozen free-range, organic eggs. Below is just a brief list of what you can eat on the paleo diet. You can refer to the infographic for a more detailed list.
- Beef, pork, poultry, fish: primarily grass-fed or wild caught, but seriously, buy what you can afford
- Eggs: this is the most perfect protein, as the body can use almost 100% of the protein without assistance from another food source
- Vegetables: eat as many as you want with particular emphasis on leafy greens
- Fruits: eat these in moderation as fructose is still sugar…a healthier form of sugar, but still sugar – try to eliminate processed fruit juices because….it’s all sugar
- Healthy fats and oils: our brain is 70-80% fat and needs good quality fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, ghee, lard, and tallow to function properly
It’s Your Choice
I’m sure you can see why following a paleo lifestyle is a very personal choice. Not only do the reasons vary, but so do the foods you choose to eliminate or include. Paleo even goes beyond diet and touches on environmental impacts such as sustainability, exercise/movement, and mental wellness. For me, paleo has become a daily mind, body, soul exercise that has just transformed my life in a short period of time. It’s not just a diet that I’m temporarily on, and eventually I’ll go back to my old way of eating. I’ve tried the “cheat day”, and felt absolutely awful the day after. My body recognized that I was putting highly inflammatory, detrimental foods into it, and it rebelled! You can choose to use paleo as a weight loss diet, but you’re missing out on all of the long term benefits of making it a lifestyle.
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